May 30, 2008

Discovering Ming philosophy: Vegetable Roots Discourse

Posted in Books tagged , , , , , , , , at 12:04 pm by myrlinn

I came across Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom from Ming China on Life and Living (CAIGENTAN) by Hong Zicheng (translated by Robert Aitken and Daniel W.Y. Kwok) at a book fair recently. Vegetable Roots Discourse… that sold the book to me, one of the few times I got a book on the basis of the title.

According to the blurb, this book was written 400 years ago, by a scholar in the Ming Dynasty named Hong Zicheng (also known as Hong Ying Ming); and draws on Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian thought.

The Asiawind Art Gallery site explains the title of the book thus: Vegetable roots (Cai-Gen in Chinese) are the basis for nutrition for the plant, yet the texture and taste of vegetable roots are usually unpalatable. So are the quotations in the book. They are the fundamental principles of life, quite tough to live by.”

[Note: The Asiawind Art Gallery site has some other interesting material on the Caigentan, including pictures of the newer Chinese and Japanese editions, and even selected pages of the book. Definitely worth exploring.]

What I find lacking in the version of the book I have is that it doesn’t include the original illustrations. Still, I do appreciate having a good English translation, and I like it that they included the Chinese text for those who can read the language.

I haven’t read it all, of course, but some of the homilies are rather quaint, like this one:

Offer rustic elders fat chicken and plain wine, and they beam with happiness. Tell them about sumptuous feasts, and they show no comprehension. Offer such people short jackets and hand-me-downs, and they grin with pleasure. Ask them whether they want embroidered robes, and they seem befuddled. Their nature is full, therefore their desires are minimal. This is how life ought to be. (Book II, 102: p108 of Vegetable Roots Discourse)

I say quaint because the writer has a rather pastoral/idealistic view of those living in rural areas. I really don’t think the “desires are minimal”. It’s just that they haven’t conceived yet of what there is out there for them to desire.


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